Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Home of Peace

All the rough-and-tumble described in the previous post was due to just one reason -- a family vacation that was way overdue. My parents, my uncle, aunt, cousin, and I, were going to spend a few days in Santiniketan.

My flight into Cal being as delayed as it was, a day's worth of vacation was scuppered. We set out the next morning. Although I'd been looking forward to this for a long while, and my expectations were high, I soon had an intimation that this was going to be even better than expected. Pulling out of Kolkata, I found our car faced with a spanking new highway. It was absolutely excellent -- speeds of a 100 km/h were easy right through, way beyond anything I'd seen before in these parts.

But of course, the "user fee" had to be paid by us, the "users". And perhaps the road signs weren't quite all right...

Anyway, we zipped right through going due northwest for a couple of hours, and then made a pit stop at Shaktigarh -- a town en route renowned for its langchas.
Langchas are a type of sweet that look like elongated gulab jamuns. The roadside shop we stopped at offered them in four varieties dished out of big old steel tubs -- sizes small or big, and made out of paneer or kheer. I sampled both, using those little icecream sticks, and the kheer one was absolutely divine. We had them with tea, served in little clay cups, just like I remembered from train trips way back when. In fact, right through the trip, we consumed milky sweet tea every once in a while from these little cups. Drink up and toss by the side of the road -- natural recycle. As a special bonus, our langchas were served on a little foil plate that said "French Brandy". The highway was lined on both sides with these langcha outlets -- Langcha House, Langcha Home, Langcha Bhavan, Langcha Niketan, Langcha Palace, even Langcha Museum, all featured a gent or two bouncing about outside, flapping arms at every car that zipped by, inviting them on in. Outside, I found an old gent who had, evidently, seen it all.

So we drove by open fields with paddy farms stretching to the horizon. It being the dry season we crossed a few bridges with thinned out rivers snaking underneath. The soil around, now that we were in the district of Birbhum, was a bright hearty red. I wondered how angry it might look in summer. We reached our destination - a charming little villa - about five hours after we'd started, stops and all. Lunch was an indigenous affair -- the vegetables had been grown in the kitchen garden outside the window, the chicken was a broiler from the shack down the road. They were out of desi.

The remainder of that day was spent hanging around. We drove into town for a bit, but more about that later. The evening featured a welcome guest from Scotland. The next morning I was up before dawn -- greeted by this magnificent sight. This photograph was shot looking due east from the upstairs balcony. I went a little crazy shooting photographs from that balcony, including one of a little assembly being conducted outside the neighbors' main gate. Eventually better sense prevailed and I realized that there was no real need for me to stay up there on my artificial machan, so I clambered downstairs and spent a happy hour traipsing around the garden photographing the villa. (Unfortunately, I'm not at liberty to post any of those really pretty shots. However, I can give you this idiosyncratic one of the kitchen garden. What you see is a phlegmatic little mango tree that has been repressed - in a way - by an ambitious and upwardly-mobile lau / lauki / ghia / gourd creeper. Only in the State of Bengal, folks. But fear not -- sources tell me that the mango tree produces some sweet fruit of its own; the local monkeys have voted with their paws.)

By seven-ish most of the others were up, so it was decided to take a stroll down to the railway station, about ten minutes away, to pick up a newspaper and see what's happening. The railway station, featuring a few shack-shops, a couple of tea joints, and a long, bright, spanking-new platform, is the prominent local gathering spot. People go there for their morning walks, to take trains into / out of town, buy the newspaper, catch up on the morning gossip, whatever. As we walked by, a rooster greeted us heartily. This rooster was different from the one who lived near our place -- that one, poor thing, did most of its crowing between lunchtime and early evening. A terrible case of jet lag, or is it an allegorical reflection of the pace of the place?

At the station we also found a fisherman laying out his morning catch. Three medium-sized katlas and a little heap of their younguns -- fresh from a pond nearby. Lunch arrangements were made at once, with a minimum of haggling. It really was so cheap, compared to Kolkata prices. The Anandabazar Patrika informed us of the atrocity the previous day on the Samjhauta Express -- dozens of innocents murdered for no reason at all in a world far far away. How far, I wondered? How far was the rioting during Partition, just a few decades ago? Behind us, a train came and went peacefully, leaving a solitary denizen rousting for breakfast.

We went back home, then, after breakfast (featuring luchi with mangsher jhol, in case you must know), we went on a little drive round town. I loved the feel of the place -- a laid back small town that lives life at its own pace. This local hero sort of summed up the local color for me. Of course, Santiniketan is famous for Visvabharati University, founded by a much greater local hero -- Rabindranath Tagore. The university is in the town of Bolpur, about four kilometers from where we were holed up. However, the influence of the Poet was everywhere -- witness the drapes in the shop to the right ("Where the mind is without fear..."). I didn't spend any time at the university itself, but I did take a quick spin of the Tagore museum -- small but very informative and well kept. An exchange between Tagore and Gandhi caught my eye. The latter had sent a telegram on the eightieth birthday of the former, words to the effect of: "Four-score not enough, may you finish five". The laconic reply: "Four-score is impertinence, five-score intolerable." It thrilled me greatly that such a productive, prolific, yet ineffably *serious* personage could have dashed off this flippant one-liner.

I bought a few local objets d'art, but more than those, I found the people so interesting. A young rapscallion followed us for a bit with his trinkets, saying to my mother, "Didi, niye jan, Santiniketan-er ekti chinnho!" ("Sister, carry with you a memory of Santiniketan!") Our car was parked for a while across from this local tailor's joint, and I watched him at his work -- customers and friends coming and going, in rhythm with his machine.

The whole experience was all so *different* from everything that I live. I'm not saying it's better, or worse. But the two days passed in a langorous flash and soon it was time to go home. We drove past the paddy fields again, stopping for a delicious set lunch at an ashram en route. There we saw the most enormous banyan tree, of which this particular root was the most remarkable feature. The food there was so good -- can you say sukto, musurir dal, dhokar dalna, ar machher jhol -- one lusted for it even before getting to the table. As evidenced by this particular root.

We paused for langchas again on the way back. It turned out the shack we'd stopped at this time was nothing but a branch of the one we'd stopped at on the way going in -- even the gent waving his arms was the same. He informed us he did morning shifts on *that* side, and afternoons on *this* side. He then proceeded to tell his life story to my mother -- starting from his salary, to his previous experience as an insurance salesman (which gives him competencies that aren't quite compensated by his present wage), to the amount he had to pay at his daughter's wedding -- a sum he'd never have managed without his American-resident niece's help.

Around him, the late afternoon tightened its chador round our shoulders, and the tireless yet doubtless tiring tillers plugged away at their paddy. We drove past leaving them all behind -- how will they be when I visit them next, I wonder.

When will I return?


Blogger Szerelem said...

Sounds like immense fun was had.
And your post made me SO nostalgic for Bengali food. Darn.

3/05/2007 2:11 PM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

The ashram in question is Bonolokkhi. Awesome, truly awesome. Hope you brought back some ghee and achaar.

Re: Robi Thakur. He may have been a 'serious personage', but certainly did not lack for wit / humour. OR the fleshly passions, whether for Jolojog-er poyodhi or Vittoria Ocampo!


3/05/2007 3:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heard the Santiniketan is advertising for tenured professors for its new Biz school.

3/05/2007 8:04 PM  
Blogger km said...

Damn, now I want to travel in India too!

3/05/2007 11:29 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

szerelem, jap, km:

ooh jealous, aren't we :-D

3/05/2007 11:34 PM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

Lovely pics. I have always wanted to visit Shantiniketan, but missed out on a couple of family trips there.
Repeating KM, this really makes me think back to a lot of memorable travel within India. Lucky you.
Sorry about your bad flight. Arm yourself with a copy of the air-passenger's bill of rights for the next trip.

3/06/2007 1:42 AM  
Blogger Revealed said...

Awwww. That was beautiful. Why did I decide to leave India again? *sigh*

3/06/2007 2:07 AM  
Blogger Revealed said...

And love the telegram exchange :D. And the drapes with Where the mind..

3/06/2007 2:08 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

thanks :-) interesting about that bill of rights thing...

well, like i said, these are some of the nicer things that strikes one about a 3-day vacation where you buzz in and buzz out. living there is definitely a very different experience -- might work for some but not for others, and along some dimensions but not others. (witness the anonymous comment re: b-schools above -- i'm not sure there are too many molecular geneticists floating around visvabharati).

3/06/2007 8:36 AM  
Blogger Revealed said...

@tr: See, I *knew* there was a good reason! :P.

*also notes the molecular bit with satisfaction cos the coolness of mggs is obviously beginning to catch on*

3/06/2007 10:54 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...


3/07/2007 1:16 AM  
Blogger MISSquoted** said...

langchas are nice...but malpuas with some hot, steaming kheer is to die for!

3/07/2007 11:24 AM  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

Nice pix, TR, and, as many have said before me...looks like it must've been a lot of fun.

And, why is it that I haven't heard of these langchas, aka elongated gulab jamuns, before? Hope M/s Annapurna or Sweet Bengal will have the answer.

3/07/2007 8:04 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

welcome! and why not (but don't say that round shaktigarh way).

thanks, buddy, and yes, it was.
langchas seem to be a well-kept secret. i don't ever recall having come across any outside wb -- although one might get lucky in interior cr park.

3/08/2007 1:02 AM  
Blogger Renovatio said...

Damn, I really need to travel more... Only places within meri desh ki dharti I've been over have been Dehradun, Amritsar, and cal...

3/08/2007 2:29 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

welcome, and yes! traveling is so incredibly rewarding. there's a whole world out there!!

3/08/2007 8:36 AM  
Blogger Renovatio said...

The world I've seen, and will continue to... my own country, I've yet to...

3/08/2007 3:17 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

gotcha. i misunderstood you the first time round, but i still stand by my statement!

3/08/2007 9:45 PM  
Blogger Renovatio said...

I agree... much to be done... much to be soon... much to be experienced... yet.

3/09/2007 4:41 AM  

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